India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) look set to win the third parliamentary elections in a row. This probable election result will almost certainly exacerbate the conflict between the Hindu majority and religious minorities, especially Muslims, and further weaken democratic institutions and political pluralism.

Parliamentary elections in India: The largest elections in human history

In India, the world’s largest democracy, parliamentary elections are held from April 19 to June 1, 2024 to decide which party will form the majority in India’s lower house, the “Lok Sabha”. The results will be announced on June 4.

A staggering 968 million eligible voters in twenty-eight states and three union territories are allowed to cast their ballots in what will be the largest elections in human history. Since 1999, the elections to the “Lok Sabha” have coincided with those to the European Parliament.

Modi’s Bharatiya BJP has been the ruling party since 2014 and has so far held 303 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats, giving it an absolute majority. With the BJP having won five state elections late last year, a victory in the upcoming general elections is likely, even though it is struggling in the richer southern states.

However, through its Hindu nationalist policies, the Modi government has exacerbated tensions between the Hindu majority society and minorities, particularly Muslims, thereby jeopardizing the cohesion of Indian society. In addition, it has undermined democratic institutions as well as political and media freedoms. Thus, the general election was also a vote on the future of Indian democracy.

Modi’s quest to entrench Hindu nationalism

Hindu nationalism is not a new phenomenon, but has a long history dating back to colonial times. Politically, it has not traditionally played a major role. However, since the BJP’s election victory under Modi in 2014, and especially since his re-election in 2019, it has increasingly influenced government action. The Hindu nationalist agenda aims to transform India into a Hindu-majoritarian state in which the Hindu majority is prioritised over various minorities.

It is based on the concept of Hindutva, according to which Hindus constitute a ‘nation’ or ‘people’ (in the sense of an ethnic group) defined not only by their religion, but also and above all by a common ancestry, language, culture and territory. This ethno-religious nationalism is at odds with the model of secularism and the politics of accommodation towards religious minorities that have characterised Indian society and democracy since independence.

Even before his election as prime minister in 2014, Modi was considered a radical Hindu nationalist because he began his political career as an activist and official in the radical Hindu nationalist volunteer organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Later, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he did not prevent, and possibly even condoned, violent riots against Muslims.

Since his re-election as Prime Minister in May 2019, Modi’s government, supported by an absolute majority in parliament, has been pushing ahead with the implementation of its Hindutva agenda, thereby exacerbating social tensions. Its endeavours are primarily directed against the more than 170 million Indian Muslims, the country’s largest religious minority with 14.2% of the population.

This included the passing of a new Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019, which allows members of religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who entered the country without valid papers before 2015 to be naturalised more easily. However, Muslims are excluded from this new regulation and therefore feel discriminated.

Since the citizenship law was passed, there have been repeated, sometimes violent protests. The vehemence of these protests stems from the fear that a large number of people living in India may no longer be able to claim Indian citizenship because they lack the necessary documents, such as official birth certificates or family registers. This would particularly affect members of the lower social classes in rural regions, including many Muslims.

On January 22, 2024, Modi inaugurated a new Ram temple in the city of Ayodhya, which is believed by devotees to be the birthplace of the Hindu god. The temple was built on the site of a centuries-old mosque that was demolished by a Hindu nationalist mob in 1992. The ceremony marked the inofficial start of Modi’s re-election campaign.

Through these and other measures, Modi’s BJP-led government has called into question the secular foundations of the Indian state and contributed to a weakening of democratic institutions and political pluraism. The escalating conflict between the Hindu majority and religious minorities, especially Muslims, is also jeopardising the already weak cohesion of Indian society.

The likely electoral result: More Modi

Despite the increased social and political tensions, the BJP is highly likely to win the general elections. Modi is all but sure to secure a rare, third consecutive term as prime minister. One reason for his extraordinary popularity among ordinary voters and elites is that he promises India prosperity. India, after all, is the world’s fastest-growing major economy and by 2027 it is forecast to become the third largest.

The oppositional Congress Party is a shadow of its former self, wracked by crises of leadership, ideology, and organization. Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Congress, has lost the trust of many of his party supporters. His political credibility is severely damaged. Ordinary voters are unsure of what the Conress party stands for. In addition, the party’s organisation has withered away and many second-tier leaders have left the party – often defecting to the BJP.

According to recent polls and forecasts, the prospects for the BJP to remain the strongest party in “Lok Sabha” are high. The crowdsourced forecasting platform RANGE (Rethinking Assumptions in a New Geostrategic Environment), established by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, D.C., predicts a 96 percent chance that Modi will be re-elected as Prime Minister and a 87 percent change that the BJP will maintain a majority of seats in the “Lok Sabha” (as of May 31, 2024). Such an election outcome would very likely further increase the erosion of Indian democracy.

india elections 2024

India at a crossroads

77 years after independence, India is at a crossroads. The Hindu-nationalist policies of the Modi government are jeopardising the cohesion of society and are accelerating the decay of Indian democracy.

Increasing discrimination against religious minorities, especially Muslims, is deepening the polarisation of society and threatens to upset the fragile balance between social fragmentation and democracy, which has so far been an important guarantor of the country’s social and political stability.

The growing political and religious polarisation of society is also distracting public discourse from important issues such as health, education, employment, environmental degradation and the fight against the still widespread poverty and inequality.

Narendra Modi and his BJP look set to win their third general election in a row. This victory would mean that over the next five years, further Hindu majority politics and increasing marginalisation of Muslims are all but guaranteed – and questions about Indian democracy will continue to grow.

Authors bio

Peter Walkenhorst is Senior Project Manager in Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program, where he works on transatlantic relations and European-Chinese relations. Previously, he was a member of the foundation’s Germany and Asia Program, responsible for projects on the systemic conflict with China and social cohesion in Asia.

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